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Malaysia in transition

Singapore-Malaysia spat sets back joint development projects

Bilateral meeting canceled despite agreement to de-escalate tensions

Singapore postponed a meeting with Malaysia to discuss joint developments after Johor's chief minister visited a Malaysian vessel parked in disputed waters.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- Tensions between Singapore and Malaysia over territorial claims have worsened as the neighbors postponed a Monday meeting to discuss the development of border areas.

The postponement came despite their agreement to calmly and constructively de-escalate tensions reached at the foreign ministers' meeting in Singapore last Tuesday.

The two countries were due to convene a meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee for Iskandar Malaysia and discuss developments in the southern Malaysian state of Johor, nearest Singapore, that would benefit both sides.

But Singapore last week postponed the meeting in protest against a visit by Johor Chief Minister Osman Sapian to a Malaysian vessel anchored "in Singapore territorial waters" last Wednesday, just a day after the foreign ministers' meeting.

"This intrusion by [the Johor chief minister] went against the spirit of the agreement between [Malaysian] Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah and me just the day before," Singaporean Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan said Monday in parliament in response to questions from legislators.

"It undermined the goodwill and trust that is necessary for further cooperation between the two countries and especially cooperation involving Johor. Therefore, it made it untenable for us to proceed with the meeting."

Malaysia's foreign ministry, on the other hand, said in a statement released on Sunday that Sapian's visit was "in Malaysian territorial waters."

The joint committee to develop Iskandar was set up in 2007 and Monday's meeting was meant to be the 14th. In the past, the committee had discussed projects such as a cross-border railway link and joint tourism promotion. As the Singapore-Malaysia border is heavily used, the Iskandar development would benefit both countries.

Since tensions surfaced early December, the old rivals had exchanged strong words. The postponement of the meeting shows that tensions are now starting to affect joint projects.

During Monday's parliamentary session, Balakrishnan also called for a resolution of the airspace spat between the two countries. Malaysia had objected to Singapore's plan to introduce a new landing system at Seletar Airport, a small and little used airport, that it claimed would allow planes to fly too low and potentially affect the development of a town in Johor.

"I strongly believe that both countries share a common interest in safe and efficient international civil aviation operations," Balakrishnan said. "After all, this has brought great economic benefits and tourism to both countries and indeed to our region." 

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